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Space use and site fidelity of wintering whooping cranes on the Texas Gulf Coast

April 4, 2022

The Aransas-Wood Buffalo population (the only non-reintroduced, migratory population) of endangered whooping cranes (Grus americana) overwinters along the Texas Gulf Coast, USA. Understanding whooping crane space use on the wintering grounds reveals essential aspects of this species' ecology, which subsequently assists with conservation. Using global positioning system telemetry data from marked whooping cranes during 2009–2017, we fit continuous-time stochastic process models to describe movement and home range using autocorrelated kernel density estimation (AKDE) and explored variation in home range size in relation to age, sex, reproductive status, and drought conditions. We used the Bhattacharyya coefficient of overlap and distance between home range centroids to quantify site fidelity. We examined the effects of time between winter home ranges and the sex of the crane on site fidelity using Bayesian mixed-effects beta regression. Winter whooping crane 95% AKDE home range size averaged 30.1 ± 45.2 (SD) km2 (median = 14.3, range = 1.1–308.6). Home ranges of sub-adult females were approximately 2 times larger than those of sub-adult males or families. As drought worsened, home ranges typically expanded. Between consecutive years, the home ranges of an adult crane exhibited 68 ± 31% overlap (site fidelity), but fidelity to winter sites declined in subsequent winters. The overlap of adult home ranges with the nearest unrelated family averaged 33 ± 28%. As a whooping crane aged, overlap with its winter home range as a juvenile declined, regardless of sex. By 4 years of age, a whooping crane had approximately 14 ± 28% overlap with its juvenile winter home range. Limited evidence suggested male whooping cranes return to within 2 km of their juvenile home range by their fifth winter. Previous data obtained from aerial surveys led ecologists to assume that whooping crane families normally used small areas (~2 km2) and expressed persistent site fidelity. Our analyses showed <8% of families had home ranges ≤2 km2, with the average area 15 times greater, and waning site fidelity over time. Our work represents an analysis of whooping crane home ranges for this population, identifying past misconceptions of winter space use and resulting in better estimates of space requirements for future conservation efforts.